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Old Embers

Old Embers for New Torches: My Man Godfrey
By Fritz Spencer
Mar 19, 2009 - 5:34:26 PM

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With crime out-of-control, broken borders, and no-good-nicks doling out trillions of dollars to millions of deadbeats, some of us are feeling down in the dumps. Many millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Millions more face home foreclosure. Others are scraping by to buy food or badly-needed medicine. Still others are being turned out into the street.

Hard times are nothing new for America. As bad as things are now, they were much worse in the thirties. The movies of the thirties, in most cases, were escapist fare designed to lift the spirits during the Great Depression. Nonetheless, these movies often contained a message. By far the best of this genre is "My Man Godfrey," a zany comedy which begins with the hero living on the town dump. It is the story of a man who loses everything except his character, which unlike his dirty surroundings, is pure gold.

Godfrey is the Harvard-educated son of a prominent Boston family. (I must pause here to remind my readers that, yes, the elite of American society were once the old New England families descended from the Puritans.) After being wiped out in the Great Crash of 1929, Godfrey finds himself destitute and living on a city dump amid empty tin cans, ashes, and shattered bricks. His companions in misery are former bank presidents and insurance executives humbled by the financial collapse.

Fate has a strange way of intervening, as it always does. Godfrey is discovered by a pair of spoiled rich girls, who possess scads of money, but not an ounce of class. The younger of the pair of sisters, a tender-hearted scatterbrain, is played by the zany red-head, Carole Lombard. Lombard, the greatest of all comediennes, is now virtually forgotten, having died at the age of thirty-three in a plane crash on her way to sell war bonds. The elder sister is played by Gail Patrick, a cold, calculating, and treacherous beauty.

Godfrey suffers mightily at the hands of the two sisters after being hired to serve as their butler. They do their best to torment him - each in their own way - but Godfrey remains unflappable. Godfrey is pursued by the love-sick sister, Irene, even as he is being framed for a jewelry theft by her malicious sister, Cornelia. In the meantime, Godfrey must serve them breakfast, wash their dishes, lay out their clothes, and shine their shoes.

Whatever predicament Godfrey finds himself him, he masters the situation by virtue of his character; and therein lies the rather profound lesson of the movie. Godfrey chooses to see only what is good in people, and to view each setback in life as an unmerited gift. Godfrey realizes that each setback, though outwardly evil, can be put to good use by applying the right moral principle. Rather than being crushed by his poverty, he uses his fall from social prominence as a chance to display his inner character. When accused of stealing a pearl necklace, he uses the accusation to reform the character of his accuser.

Godfrey sees each chance meeting as an opportunity to raise his fellow man higher. Each casual conversation is Godfrey's chance to steer his friends' minds towards higher things.

Which is not to say that Godfrey is a pious stick-in-the-mud. His conduct is guided by genuine humility. In the end, his tender-hearted love of humanity wins out, and Godfrey is restored to his rightful place. In raising others, he finds that he has raised himself.

"My Man Godfrey" is unique among movies in that it is both a hilarious comedy, and a lesson in what is truly noble in human nature. It teaches us that the real power in life is not money or social position, but moral character. That is why the movie speaks to us across the years, especially now, in a time of economic crisis.

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